The use of questions in the evolution of language

Fredrik Stjernberg

Compared with our close relatives among primates, humans stand out in asking questions in ways they don’t. We have something like command gestures among primates (”move over”, ”give me food”) (Byrne et al. 2017), but reports of questions and answers among primates are very rare, virtually non-existent. In contrast, some reports suggest that the average four-year old girl asks 400 questions in a day. Children start asking questions without being told to do so, and questioning behaviour is found well before infants have a command of language.
The role of questions has been underexamined in the study of the evolution of language (Jordania 2006 is a notable exception). There is an apparently obvious reason for this: asking questions requires using a language, so how could we come to draw conclusions about the evolution of language from the study of questions? Not so fast. It is clear that even pre-linguistic children are inquisitive in a way that other animals are not, and it should also be clear that this inquisitiveness plays a vital role in learning a language. This inquisitiveness must have evolved in tandem with the evolution of language.
This questioning behaviour is different from the general curiousity we find in other animals (Carruthers 2018). Many animals spend time examining their surroundings; human infants also spend time examining what their care-givers can inform them about the surroundings, and they use prompts to get at such information. It is clear that this is a farreaching difference between human children and non-human animals, something that goes to the question of possible continuities and discontinues between humans and non-human animals. And this difference is relevant to the use and learning of a language. In fact, it is hard to understand how someone could learn a full language without having the ability to raise questions.
Here, we have a chicken-and-egg problem. Only language-users raise questions, but it also seems that you couldn’t learn a language without asking questions. There must be ways around this problem (since we have solved it), and these ways tell us something about how humans are geared towards learning a language.
One aspect of asking questions points to a special role for prosocial behaviour: extensive asking of questions would not have evolved without a certain level of epistemic trust. If questions asked were regularly answered in a misleading way, there would be little room for this practice to evolve. Asking questions is an outgrowth of a prosociality which would have been in evidence already before the advent of homo sapiens.
Dennett (2017:97ff) has described different levels of cognitive systems: Darwinian, Skinnerian, Popperian and Gregorian. We should add another level: Collingwoodian, after R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943), who emphasized the role of questions in human cognition. Only Collingwoodian creatures are language users and learners. This level should come between the Popperian and the Gregorian. Only askers of questions can be Gregorian, but asking questions goes beyond being a Popperian creature.

Byrne, R. W., E. Cartmill, E. Genty, K. E. Graham, C. Hobaiter & J. Tanner (2017), “Great ape gestures: intentional communication with a rich set of innate signals”, Animal Cognition 2017; 20:755–769.
Carruthers, P. (2018), “Basic questions”, Mind & Language. 2018; 33:130–147.
Collingwood, R. G. (2013), An Autobiography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939; revised edition, R.G. Collingwood: An Autobiography and other writings, with essays on Collingwood’s life and work, edited by David Boucher and Teresa Smith, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Dennett, D. (2017), From bacteria to Bach and back, New York, Norton Publ.
Jordania, J. (2006), Who asked the first question? The origins of human choral singing, intelligence, language and speech. Tblisi: Logos.